I recently came back from Japan and was inspired by the beauty and elegance of the country and its people.
One of the things I’ve noticed is their ability to be still and be calm. If you speak Japanese, or have a chance to become good friends with someone from that culture, you will notice that they have many expressions of ‘being calm’. They will talk about staying calm and being calm. They aspire to be calm. Being calm is highly valued in Japanese society.
And the result of this sense of calm is ‘stillness’.
Stillness is important in elegance.
Here are the reasons why
1) Stillness influences your countenance, manners and your mannerisms.
Stillness evokes an appearance of calmness from within. This sense of stillness helps calm others down, it is pleasant and makes others more comfortable around you.
Hurriedness and fluster may cause others anxiety.
2) Stillness evokes an atmosphere to be efficient, to eliminate the unnecessary
When you go about your day, when you are calm, you probably become more efficient and realistic. You set up the situation where you can do your best, in whatever you do.
3) An elegant person is still.
Every person whom you feel is elegant has this sense of stillness about him/her. It doesn’t matter the situation.
4) It is easier to maintain an elegant appearance with stillness.
To maintain good posture, there must be a sense of stillness otherwise balance cannot be achieved. If you are still, you’re less likely to trip, or spill something on yourself. If you go about life with stillness, you are probably clearer in the head in purpose and direction and are less likely to forget or miss things.
The Elegant Japanese Woman
The elegant Japanese woman is still. She does not fidget, speak or move hurriedly. There is careful thought in her speech and actions.
She stands upright, without looking slouchy. Her head is slightly lowered, compared to the elegant European or American counterparts. I believe that is cultural, as Japanese women as they value the appearance of being humble and tend to not be comfortable in the limelight. Her strength is quiet and she is uncomfortable with drawing attention to herself.
She speaks softly, smiles gently (not the full grin unless something is really funny, and even then she will try very hard to compose herself). She is attentive and very helpful. She makes effort in her appearance with elegant, conservative styles.
Her pace of speech is unhurried. She isn’t afraid to pause in conversation. She is comfortable with silence or lulls in conversation. She listens attentively and responds as sincerely as possible (even if she doesn’t want to).
Her countenance, movements and behaviour are from a sense of stillness.
She moves and behaves in a calm way, like royalty.
Every movement comes from the central balance of the body. The body is still, with all body parts kept “in”. Nothing is fully extended if unnecessary. She is upright and balanced. Her head is erect unless it is necessary to look down. It is as though she walks around with an invisible book on her head.
She doesn’t clap her hands when gesturing, slap someone on the back. She doesn’t rummage. Every action is purposeful and necessary. Hands are placed neatly by the side, head looking up, and she is not fidgety or moving or jerking unnecessarily. She moves seamlessly like a sloth, an elegant sloth. (I’m sorry, I know sloth seldom used in a positive way, but just google the way the sloth moves… it is seamless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an ‘elegant’ posture so it doesn’t look regal at all.)
She doesn’t jerk and turn around suddenly, even if she realized she is going the wrong way. There are a lot of pauses, waiting to see if she is in anyone’s way. Her eyes look straight ahead or at you (without gazing) or is focused and not darting around.
Her head is still as well with no sudden turns to left or right. She will not twist the neck awkwardly to look for something.
Whenever she carries or brings something, she thinks about the logistics about it. This might be an insignificant example but it did not come naturally for me. In Japan, we take the Metro a lot. Instead of always digging into the bag for the Metro card to tap out whenever we take a train, it will be in an accessible position, or a little small tote bag with frequently used items such as money purse, mobile phone, packet of tissues and the metro card.
The efficient way of life has enabled her to be still and elegant.
How the Japanese Woman has Inspired me
While I’m not the most fidgety person, I think I’ve grown more hurried and flustered (at least on the inside) due to the fast-pace life. I don’t often feel calm because I feel busy all the time.
When I’m on the train and whenever I have a few spare minutes, instead of staring out the window into the sunset, I’m on my phone (don’t judge me). I’m checking email and replying to my messages from Whatapp, Telegram, Linechat, Wechat, Facebook messenger, and messages from Instagram. Then I check my Instagram and IG stories so on and so forth. Then, perhaps I would read BBC news and check whatever shopping app to see what’s new. If I’m not on my phone, I’m making To-do lists in my diary or thinking about what else I need to get done.
In that way, I feel that is hard to be still in all aspects, mentally, spirtually, emotionally and that affects the physical aspect. I start to fidget, or get flustered. My attention seems to be divided and I’m multi-tasking all the time.
In Japan, when I look around, or whenever I interact with the Japanese, they look so calm, still and unhurried. I doubt they have significantly different lives from the rest of us. And yet, they are able to still have a sense of stillness and peace. And that is why they appear to be so elegant.
That made me reflect and inspired me to write this article.
While I was conscious of their calm-ness, I only realized recently the significance of stillness and its role in being elegant.
This concept was enforced when my guyfriend K joined (or rather, crashed) my trip for a day. I was on my yearly visit to my Japanese bestfriend R. K hasn’t been to Japan before, and so he hadn’t adjusted to their quiet, calm culture. He, being in his raw form and being himself, provided a visible contrast with R. This contrast helped me see clearly the differences in Japanese culture.
K was energetic, lively and spoke very fast. He was also very animated in his expressions. He often used his body to gesture his meaning and to communicate. He was also very casual in his manners. He was warm and friendly and excitable. He was spontaneous and energetic. Often, he was also unfocused. He could be talking about a topic and intersperse other topics in. He was fun to be around, but I wouldn’t say he was the most elegant. Indeed, there were some situations where I had wished he was more sensitive to the Japanese culture and followed (to appear more well-mannered)…especially in a country like Japan where manners were taken very seriously.
Now, if he were in some other countries or culture where it was more relaxed and less stiff, he would fit right in. Unfortunately, he stuck out like a sore thumb.
Now, I don’t think he was trying to be rude, in fact, he was trying to make my rather reserved Japanese friend feel comfortable and he tried so hard to be friendly. He spent the whole day talking to her, initiating and striking up fun conversations with many topics, showing her this that on the train, asking her so many questions (questions which he actually doesn’t really care about the answer, but she was diligently researching to find answers for). He hogged her attention of conversation on our walks on the way to any destination.
Initially, I tried to hint to him some things to be aware of, due to Japanese culture. And eventually I gave up. I knew that R will just bear with him due to her manners.
However, it was very confusing for my elegant Japanese friend. There were many moments where she paused, because she didn’t understand, or know what to say. She didn’t know what to say because she was used to thinking before speaking, considering what she was going to say, how it would affect someone, or how she came across. She wanted to be accurate in her meaning, at the same time not offend or disrespect anyone.
K would ask her direct questions, which she felt placed on the spot to answer. Questions such as, “Do you want to go to this theatrical cafe?”. “When are you going to London? Let me know, I will go with you.” “How about I join you for xxx?”
She looked at me hesitantly. That is because they probably take things literally and generally not in the habit of making this kind of small talk. She wouldn’t say, “Sure, I’ll let you know when I go to London”, to continue the small talk especially if she doesn’t mean it and certainly if she does not want to!
Also, because they (the Japanese) do not want to appear rude, they will always attempt to listen intently, and take your questions seriously. For instance, if you asked R about the most popular restaurant for Sushi, she will spend 15 minutes to research that for you. Thus, it was very tiring for her to constantly be engaged in a high-energy way.
On the train, he was talking loudly. He was animated, and distracting, flailing his arms everywhere. For the Japanese, their normal volume is almost inaudible as they prize quietness and so as not to disturb others. That also means that little noise easily irritate them. So R was actually feeling self-conscious and slightly disturbed. She was also trying to hint to him bits of Japanese culture, such as explaining how on the trains, we switch and carry the our backpacks in front, even if the backpacks are the ones for daily use and are small.
I was also an old friend, so he didn’t need to impress me, so I was pretty much ignored for the day. I think it was because he has never had a chance to socialize with a Japanese person before. He got so excited, he pretty much forgot to include me in conversation and was very dismissive whenever R tried to include me in conversation. She felt offended and told me afterwards.
But get this, I didn’t know she was offended. She only told me later when he left.
I, on the other hand, felt slightly embarrassed.
I was annoyed of course, but I didn’t want to ruin the day and kept my manners pleasant.
However, I’m glad to have that experience because it was through observation that I learned a thing or two more about elegance. The contrast between friendly and ‘loud’ K and reserved, elegant R reinforced the concept of stillness in relation to elegance.
I don’t think K meant to be rude at all (so don’t hate him!). He is a nice person, just… largely uncultured and unaware. I mean, I feel uncultured too and that’s why I make an effort to learn.
Now I’m not saying we have to mimic Japanese culture in order to be elegant. I believe elegance comes in different styles and forms, and we could just learn and be inspired but create our own sense of elegance.
In fact, to some extent, it was tiring. I had to be very sensitive because R doesn’t like to say no. In that way, I appreciate the Western culture of elegance of being direct but nice and polite in saying no. Sometimes I feel R overthinks things. Because they are so indirect, I’m often guessing and hoping I’ve not offended anyone. But the underlying principle is noble because these manners and etiquette had began out of respect and consideration for others.
Habit of Self-Reflection & Thinking Twice
Another interesting point to note about Japanese women and R was their “pause” which happened frequently in conversation. This ‘pause’ occurs during conversation because they are quietly considering what they are about to say. I’ll admit that I found it awkward at first, and they definitely appreciated my ‘natural-ness’ and ‘casualness’ because it put them at ease (as long as I do not make them uncomfortable).
This pause slows my natural (hurried) pace down. It calms me, gives me more time to think, and also compose myself. I became more conscious of my posture and my awareness of everything heightened. I found myself matching her pace and naturally being influenced by her posture and gestures. I learned how to be still.
That habit of self-reflection created a sense of stillness. As a result, she was always polite and considerate. She probably didn’t offend anyone or appear rude. She was pleasant and her manners impressed others. She was quite elegant.
She didn’t rush to respond or react out of emotion. (If I could do this better, I believe I will save myself a lot of trouble!)
Her habit of thinking before she speaks creates a slower pace of life. She often pauses to think, which is something I don’t do very much, I’ll admit. As a result, there is almost nothing rash in her actions.
I think I could use some of that.
Stillness can be learned
I believe the habit of stillness can be learned. On the weekends, I teach young children recreational ballet. They start at ages 3,4 or 5 and come into class running, screaming and bouncing off walls.
One of my favorite things to do to help me teach more efficiently and to instil discipline is this one exercise. I place these young children in a circle where they have to stand still and not move while I count one to twenty. It may not be easy for them in the beginning. They might giggle, cough, scratch, look at the ceiling, the mirror, touch their skirt. When they do, I start my counts from one again.
This exercise calms them down and it is easier for me to start teaching ballet. The parents stand outside amazed. Whenever I’m away, the relief teachers always comment about what a pleasure it is to teach my little ballet girls, and about how disciplined they are in class.
Unknowingly, I was teaching them the concepts of stillness.
In conclusion, I wrote this article because I want to remember my experience and reflections of that trip. I hope this may inspire you to prioritise some ways to be elegant. I’ve also read that meditation helps, and meditation is very useful in all aspects of life. Maybe that is what God meant and He wanted us to learn to be still, as the bible says, ““Be still, and know that I am God…” (Psalms 46:10)
Thanks for reading!